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Buffalo classics and more at Marinaro’s Larkin Tavern

In 1890, James Gorman was operating a grocery store and saloon at 131 Van Rensselaer St., according to the Buffalo City Directory. So it’s no surprise that you feel suffused in history when you step into Marinaro’s Larkin Tavern at that address.

The building is now covered in pale gray siding, so it’s not easy to imagine how it would have looked 123 years ago. In an old-time tavern touch, the door is set into the corner of the building where Van Rensselaer and Roseville meet. It opens into a long, narrow front room set up with booths on one side and a bar on the other. We checked out the light-filled back room where two Buffalo police officers were having lunch near a large TV, but we settled into a booth in the front room so we could soak up the atmosphere.

Under the classic stamped-tin ceiling is a beautiful, curving bar made of honey-colored wood and a back bar with columns flanking a large mirror. A collection of historic tin brewery trays, including such familiar names as Simon Pure, Koch’s and Iroquois, brings back memories. But most of the decor is sports memorabilia, including photos, pennants, posters and sports cards. On the wall next to our booth was a photo of “The Hit Heard Round The World,” Bills linebacker Mike Stratton’s tackle of Chargers running back Keith Lincoln in the 1964 AFL Championship.

The menu isn’t enormous, but there are enough selections to appeal to most people, with an emphasis on Buffalo classics. There are wings ($6.50 single, $10.50 double, a few bucks more for barbecued wings); fingers ($7.50 single); a soup of the day ($2.50 cup, $3.25 bowl); five salads, ranging from chef ($3.25) to antipasto ($7.25); 8-inch subs ($5.25, add bacon for $1) and sandwiches and burgers, whose prices range from grilled cheese ($3.25) to the pizza burger ($7.25).

We also checked the specials chalkboard, which listed a soup, a salad and a sandwich. Two of us chose to start with the chicken corn chowder ($2.50 a cup), which was served in heavy white Buffalo China. It was piping hot, with a delicious broth, not too thick or floury. In addition to chunks of roasted chicken, the soup was full of vegetables, including bits of celery, diced potatoes and corn kernels.

The fried bologna sandwich ($4.75) was offered with onions and/or cheese. We passed on the cheese, but enjoyed the soft, slightly browned onions atop the quarter-inch-thick bologna slice. The bologna had been nicely seared on the grill for extra flavor, and the roll was soft and fresh. You really can’t beat that price, either.

The Italian melt ($5.25) was full of flavor. A half-inch-thick layer of high-quality, nicely seasoned salami and fresh-sliced deli ham was topped with zingy pepperjack and cheddar on grilled rye bread.

Both sandwiches were served with a handful of rippled potato chips and were big enough to satisfy an office worker’s hunger. If you plan to spend the afternoon digging ditches, which Gorman’s original customers probably did, add a side of fries ($2.50) or onion rings ($3).

The Summer Salad from the specials menu ($6.50) was a thing of beauty. Served in a bowl as big as a hubcap, it began with a bed of crisp romaine and ended with a large, grilled chicken breast cut into strips. Between were liberal amounts of dried cranberries, canned mandarin orange slices, half walnuts and chunks of salty feta cheese, with a low-fat balsamic vinaigrette served on the side. A large, soft, freshly baked bread stick completed the dish. The fruit, nuts, greens and chicken combined to make this a stellar dish, maybe one that Gorman’s customers in 1890 would not have recognized, but perfect for modern tastes in an old-timey setting.